The Food and Drug Administration approves dozens of cancer drugs every year, but the vast majority of them offer gradual improvements. A treatment might shrink tumors in a third of patients, or extend survival by a couple months, and a company can still haul in billions.
The results were much more revolutionary when, at six years old, Emily Whitehead became the first child to receive CAR-T cell therapy, in which researchers arm a patient’s own immune cells against their cancer. Whitehead’s therapy almost killed her, but it successfully killed her cancer, paving the way for the approach to become widely available.
In the decade since, Whitehead’s healthy, ordinary childhood — captured annually in a photo her family releases of Whitehead holding a chalkboard marking eight, nine, 10 years cancer-free — has been a public reminder of what cutting-edge treatments can, sometimes, achieve.
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